Debt and Farmer Suicides in India

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How many farmers have to die before the Indian state will see their plight?

A very famous public service announcement once made the visual claim, that every time the performer snapped his fingers, a child died in Africa.

Such analogies are supposed to jerk the audience out of an assumed slumber and awaken them to a pressing humanitarian issue. Similarly, in India, the data in 2015 showed that a farmer was committing suicide every hour.

Two years have passed, but the Centre has yet to acknowledge the existence of an agricultural crisis. Veteran reporters like P. Sainath have stressed on this issue for years but to little avail. The fast-growing urban economy outpaces all other rural stories when it comes to the narratives of ‘issues’ that the Indian state has to tackle.

Since 1995, 300,000 farmers have committed suicide. These figures do not account for the underreporting of farmer suicides since 2014 when the National Crime Records Database stopped including the deaths of agricultural labourers in their tolls. It’s more than the number of Indians that have been killed in wars and terrorist attacks since independence. It’s more than the number of Indians that died fighting in World War 2. And timed as these figures do with India’s economic liberalisation, it suggests that this growth came at a tremendous and terrible cost.

But the reasons that cause farmers to kill themselves are many. The traditionally understood reason was that crop failures led to suicides. But this is not always true; reality can play out to the opposite effect. In years where there have been bountiful crops, farmers were forced to sell their produce for far lower prices. When India’s exports show dramatic growth, the price for this produce drops beyond a sustainable level – leaving farmers waiting, bowl in hand for the government to raise the Minimum Support Price (MSP).

Debt is another factor. The National Sample Survey Data from 2011 showed that on average, over half of all agricultural households in India were trapped in debt. In some states, this number was as high as 93 percent of households (Andhra Pradesh) and 89 percent (Telangana). The data is also likely outdated, as, in 2017, IndiaSpend found that 70 percent of India’s 90 million agricultural households spent more than they earned.

Access to credit is usually pitched as a solution to debt, but India’s farmers continue to suffer from a lack of available banking finance. In Andhra Pradesh (2015), one of the worst debt-ridden states, 90 percent of farmers were unable to access interest-free loans that were subsidized by the government – forcing them to turn to extortionate moneylenders.

The disconnect between stated government policy and implementation is laughable in cases. Every year, billions of dollars worth of farm loan waivers are announced. But on the ground, farmers sometimes receive only up to one paisa (the smallest denomination possible in India is 50 paise) – as a waiver.

Cumulatively, India’s farm loan waivers amounted to $49.1 billion in 2016-17. In the four months since, 991 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra alone. Many are trapped in debt, with the debt often carrying forward to their households after their deaths – putting their families in an impossible situation.

[The] Indian peasant has an amazing capacity to bear famine, flood, disease, and continuous grinding poverty—and when he could endure it no longer; he would quietly and almost uncomplainingly lie down in his thousands or millions and die. That was his way of escape.

The above quote by Jawaharlal Nehru suggests that the poor quietly accept their lot. But India’s farmers have been vocal about their plight. Last year, farmers in Maharashtra went on strike in seven districts. In Delhi, many farmers travelled from Tamil Nadu carrying the skulls of those they said died as suicides – requesting debt relief. For many years, farmer protests were a common sight at Jantar Mantar – the nation’s most popular protest location, recently closed to protestors for good.

The problem is not that farmers are not voicing their grievances, but that the nation is indifferent. Rural reporter P. Sainath has covered this issue at length, reporting on an agrarian crisis that consistently fails to make front-page headlines. As he asks:

Fifteen million people have been pushed out of agriculture, where are they going?

There are a few institutional setups that attempt to communicate with and to India’s farmers. A kisan hotline, set up by the government to address farmer problems and provide information, has seen the most calls from the worst-affected states; Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh to name a few. In a 2017 paper, published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, T.S.S. Rao et al highlight how socioeconomic factors play a larger role than psychological ones – policy moves are needed to relieve the burden on farmers, not just mental health professionals.

That India’s farmers are killing themselves in large numbers should be immediate cause to rethink national policy. How many more farmers must die before India takes this mass extinction of life and livelihood seriously?

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